Prior to the disturbance of Spanish conquest in 1501, Panama was home to dozens of indigenous tribes, including the Ngöbe-Buglé, the Kuna, the Emberá, the Naso, and the Wounaan (2). Although oral histories have passed down through these indigenous populations, which describe great civilizations, there is little archeological evidence to support these claims. The absence of strong artifacts and sites is probably because the tribes materialized their civilization with perishable items. Another possible explanation is that archeologists have not ventured deep enough into the jungles and mountains to find such sites.
Just like the people of Panama today, the indigenous populations took advantage of their land’s geography to serve as a strategic trade zone. Panama exists as a narrow strip of land connecting Central and South America. Early inhabitants developed a trade route that extended from Peru, across Panama, and up into Mexico. This trail was called Las Cruces. Along this tired road, archeologists have discovered large stone statues, pottery, gold ornaments, and mutates (stones for grinding corn) (2). This trade route is significant because it shows how different societies across continents were connected and sharing their beliefs and customs with each other. After the colonization of the Europeans, Las Cruces helped transport enslaved Africans, and eventually evolved into the Camino Real (1).
Another geographical aspect that affected develop of indigenous Panamanian culture is its position between two oceans. Indigenous people relied heavily on fish protein, and are believed to have fished in estuaries, coral reefs, and mangrove swamps. So important is the country’s fish culture that the name “Panama” derives from the indigenous expression meaning “abundance of fish (2).”